Court/Judicial body: Inter-American Court of Human Rights
Citation: Serie C No. 112
Date: 2 September 2004
Instrument(s) cited: American Convention on Human Rights
The case of the Instituto de Reeducación del Menor (Institute of Re-education for Minors) v. Paraguay was the first in which the Inter-American Court had the opportunity to establish standards for the young people’s detention conditions. The Institute, which had initially been built as a care home, was used as a detention centre for young people. Between August 1996 and July 2001, the centre was overpopulated by 50 per cent, the hygiene conditions were poor, there were not enough beds and blankets for all those being held, young people were kept in their cells for most of the day with no recreational activities, in addition to which, there were no doctors or psychologists on hand for young inmates. Most of the young people detained there had not yet been brought to trial, and yet shared the same cells as those who had already been sentenced. This was largely because, at that time, the law did not establish that a custodial sentence should only be passed as a last resort and for the shortest possible time, particularly in the case of minors. On 12 November 1993, an NGO called Fundación Tekojojá filed a general habeas corpus seeking a change in the conditions in which young people were held. Almost five years later, this was granted. However, the authorities did not enforce the habeas corpus. As internal remedies had proved insufficient, on 14 August 1996, Fundación Tekojojá, along with CEJIL, submitted a petition to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. During the time that it took to process the case, there were three fires in the Institute, which killed nine young detainees, many more were injured. During the third fire, a young inmate died from a gun-shot wound.
Investigations were requested, but came to nothing. On 20 May 2002, The Inter-American Commission requested the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to issue a judgement on the violation of the right to life and physical integrity of the children who died and were injured in the fires, the right to personal freedom, special protection, and judicial guarantees on behalf of all those held in the Institute between 14 August 1996 and 25 July 2001. The victims’ representatives also alleged a violation of Article 2 of the American Convention (the State’s obligation to adopt national laws to protect the rights and freedoms of those living within its jurisdiction), arguing that Paraguay had not developed public policies to protect children, having only established a special programme for young people in 2001, the application of which was inconsistent. They also declared that the psychological well-being of the victims’ families had been violated as a result of the fear, grief and anguish they had suffered through not knowing what had happened to their loved ones at the time of and after the fires in the penitentiary. They also said that the rights to health, education and rest – which are enshrined in Article 26 of the American Convention (in relation to Article 19), in Articles 11, 12, 13 and 15 of the American Declaration, and Articles 24,28, 29 and 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – had been violated.
The victims’ representatives requested additional measures of reparation including: the modification of the juvenile justice system to bring it in line with international standards, the construction of centres suitable for minor; the implementation of suitable programmes and the training of officials working at these centres; the transfer of children out of adult prisons to places suitable to their age, and, if these were not available, to release them; an apology from the State authorities to the victims and their families; the production and dissemination of a video which would reflect what had happened in the Institute. They also requested that other specific measures be taken for the victims (the granting of release for those children who were still in remand, and the reduction of sentences of those who had been sentenced, medical and psychological assistance, surgery and treatment for those injured by the fires, and educational programmes, etc. The Court’s decision The Court analysed the alleged violations in light of Article 19 of the American Convention (which refers to child rights). Commenting on the right to life, the Court stated that when it comes to children deprived of their liberty, the State must assume the role of guarantor with the greatest care and responsibility, and take special measures to guarantee the best interests of the child. In this regard, it should pay attention to the conditions of any detention centre where children are held.
The Court reiterated in its decision that in defining ‘cruel’ or ‘degrading’ treatment, the fact that a minor is being dealt with must be considered. It also observed that the legality of detaining a minor depends on the use of detention as an exceptional measure and one that is applied for the shortest possible period of time. The Court declared that it is the State’s responsibility to establish a specific system for dealing with children in conflict with the law, which it said must include certain characteristics, including: 1. The possibility of adopting measures to deal with children without resorting to judicial proceedings; . If judicial proceedings are necessary, the Court must take various measures such as assessing the psychological well-being of the child during the proceedings, controlling the way in which the child’s statement is taken, and regulate publicity of the trial; … 3. It should use its discretion in the different stages of the trial and phases of the administration of juvenile justice to taken age into account; . Those involved in the administration of juvenile justice should be specially trained in child rights and child psychology to avoid abuse in the system and ensure that the measures ordered in each case are suitable and proportionate. In terms of the reparations ordered, the Court insisted on the fact that the victims were children for establishing the amount of compensation. The Court also ordered additional measures to prevent similar events from occurring in future: it ordered that the State: publish parts of the sentence in national newspapers make a public statement recognising the responsibility of the State create of a specific public policy for young people in conflict with the law ensure medical and psychological treatment, and educational and vocational programmes for ex-detainees grant a place to bury the children who had died in the fires.
Link to full judgement: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/casos/votos/vsc_cancado_112_esp.doc (only available in Spanish)